I first heard about Darren Fung a few months ago when I found a video called "Making of a Film Score", which takes you into the recording session for the score to the CBC series The Great Human Odyssey, and he's been on my radar as an outstanding composer ever since. The video is great, and a lot of fun to watch, but what really caught my attention was Darren's music and his ability to control the session and his orchestra. I've included the video at the bottom of our Q&A, I highly recommend checking it out!
Nick Dolan: Can you tell us about your musical background before you started film scoring?
Darren Fung: So like all good Chinese boys, I started playing piano when I was three. I dabbled a bit in the violin but gave that up for the saxophone in junior high school. I did a fair bit of concert band stuff, especially through Air Cadets (it’s sort of like Junior ROTC or the Civil Air Patrol cadet program in the US). They had these incredible honour band programs that performed at an amazingly high level, provided some amazing coaching and mentorship, and I think that’s where I got the large ensemble bug, never being an orchestral player. You know, the goose bumps you get when you’re part of something special? That’s the one…
I would be really remiss if I didn’t mention my amazing piano teacher, David Tutt, who really reached out to me musically as a young teenager. He would ad lib these second piano parts so we’d be performing these two-piano-four hands duets in his studio. He’d talk about pieces like we were orchestrating them: “here comes the horns, listen to the strings here.” We’re still close, and in fact every summer I’m invited to come back home to conduct my old conservatory’s summer string orchestra, which I absolutely love doing.
I ended up doing my Bachelor of Music at McGill University in Montreal, which I’m very proud of (and the alma mater fund duly takes advantage of as well!). I studied jazz piano, avant garde classical composition, electronic music, choral singing, conducting – all that stuff that I didn’t even really know existed and made me into the well-rounded musician that I am today.
Nick: What were your experiences like with the Young Composers Project and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra?
Darren: I think that Young Composer’s Project was critical to my decision to studying music and composition in university. It was such an amazing thing, getting private composition lessons with John Estacio. I think I had a good sense of tonal composition at the time, how to evolve a melody to make it “whole”, but I think a huge part of what John taught me was orchestration. I was so ahead of my class in orchestration at McGill, in part because at 15 I had a piece of music played by a professional orchestra! I didn’t realize what a treat that was until I got to university! But the feeling of having your music played by an orchestra was amazing. It gave me the buzz.
John Estacio, who was the Composer-In-Residence with the ESO way back some 20 years ago, is still a great friend and mentor that I have the utmost respect for. Almost every time I’m back home in Edmonton we manage to hang out. I invited John to sit in the booth as a trusted set of ears when we recorded the score for The Great Human Odyssey with members of the Edmonton Symphony. He still teaches me a lot today, but I feel that our relationship has evolved from being mentor-grasshopper (!) to good friends and colleagues.
Nick: How did you get started scoring film and video? What was your first experience like?
Darren: It’s funny, my wife and I recently bought a house and when we were moving, I found the very first short film that I composed, on VHS. I’m now working with that director on his first feature film, minus the VHS tape of course. I didn’t have the studio setup that I have now: a lot of what I did was old-school style that I learnt from Buddy Baker at (the very last of) his workshops that he taught at NYU. Calculating a click track manually, using the piano to compose to picture. What was most shocking was the fact that I was no longer writing music for myself, but I was writing music for somebody else, and they could tell me to rewrite what I thought was the most amazing piece of music ever!
My first professional experience was orchestrating and assisting Montreal composer Ray Fabi, who I’m sure won’t mind me repeating this story. He had me orchestrating for a small quintet and we were recording some music for a television series. I realized early on that I had overcommitted myself but still thought I could get it done, but I ended up turning up to the recording session without half of the charts done. I was embarrassed, humiliated, and of course, humbled beyond belief. Ray was, understandably pissed off, but what’s amazing, is that Ray gave me a second chance (and a raise!) because we both realized how overly ambitious we were. I’ll always be grateful to Ray for that.
Nick: What would you say has contributed most to your success as a composer?
Darren: Well, I can tell you it wasn’t my boyish good looks!
I think that it’s a combination of resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. Early in on my career, because I didn’t have a studio setup, I ended up doing these ridiculous 20 piece orchestral scores for these student films, and then teaming up with recording students at McGill to help me record and mix. They got an amazing experience running a film scoring session, and well, I got to record orchestras for the price of pizza and beer. It’s also how I learned how to be efficient with an orchestra – nothing kicks your ass to ensure that your shit is together more than a room of grumpy musicians at 2 in the morning who want to go home. So you don’t waste their time!
That being said, I feel that I’m a very loyal person – I still record in Montreal and Toronto a fair bit and I make a real effort to call those same people who were on the pizza and beer sessions. I could easily go to the first chair players of the symphonies in either of those towns, but I try really hard to go with the people who have supported my career, it’s only fair. And we still have pizza, or at the very least, beer after every session (provided it’s after 11am J), even if we’re all getting paid.
On that same note, I feel that the schmooze is a big part of what I do. I used to be super aggressive when I was schmoozing, and probably in hindsight, a little too much, but that being said I think it’s helped me establish a name for myself. My buddy, Jeff St. Jules, who last year won the best Canadian First Feature Award at the Toronto International Film Festival used to tell me that “a lot of the people who are heavy schmoozers don’t have the goods to back it up, but you’re actually good.” (and it was one of his first films that we got 20 musicians at midnight in Pollack Hall at McGill!)
Nick: What is your most memorable experience as a musician or as a composer?
Darren: When we were recording the score to The Great Human Odyssey, we recorded in an amazing hall – Enmax Hall at the Francis Winspear Centre for Music in Edmonton. We were able to do some innovative PR and relationship building and we opened up the last hour of our first day recording, to the public where we performed a few cues in front of a live audience. But what was fun was that we had the choir, Pro Coro Canada, and some percussion join us in front of the audience. But that was the first time the choir had sang with the orchestra. They had rehearsed for an hour before, and then went out on stage with the orchestra in front of 1200 people! But being able to conduct my music, live to picture, with orchestra and choir, and hearing that for the first time was amazing. One of the choristers after remarked the next day that I had the biggest ear-to-ear grin on my face!
Nick: From your experience, where do you see the future the film scoring industry going?
Darren: There’s definitely a shift away from the traditional orchestra stuff that I’ve thrived on to more contemporary scores. There’s certainly less importance being placed on using live musicians, in part because timeframes are getting so ridiculously short, but also because the technology is getting so good. I think there’s a real demand for good, quality television, especially now that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have become such huge players. The big question for composers is how we monetize that – right now the PRO royalties coming from those guys are horrible if they are anything at all. Will broadcast television die in 20 years? I’m not so sure, but we know that the Netflix’s and Hulu’s have changed the environment in which we make money.
Nick: What are some essential skills that composers need in order to be successful in this industry?
Darren: I think the biggest thing is to remember that you are running a business. So that includes all things like marketing, accounting, project management, psychiatry (seriously) and oh yeah, composing. Know what your limits are, and when to get help. The challenge is that when you are starting out, you need to do everything yourself because you can’t afford to hire anybody – I think the key is knowing when to strategically spend money to give you the time to create.
In terms of essential skills, I think it varies from composer to composer. When I first got into the biz, I thought everyone came from a conservatory background and would have a music degree. So I was stupidly surprised when I found out that there are some great film composers out there who can’t even read music. I used to cast judgment on those sort of guys, but I then realized how incredibly talented they can be. On the same note, I’ve never been an engineer – I cannot mix my way out of a box, but at the very least I know how to work with an engineer to get the sound I want in a collaborative manner – I know the lingo. On that same train of thought, I think that composers should at a bare minimum need to have a basic understanding of reading and writing music notation, and understanding of the instruments they are writing for (or pretending to write for via their computers). So the short story: know enough to fake it!
Nick: Can you tell us about your work with the Screen Composers Guild of Canada?
Darren: When I was first entering the business, the SCGC (at the time known as the Guild of Canadian Film Composers) was a huge asset to me as an emerging composer. It connected me with real professionals working in Montreal and Toronto at the time, and it taught me about the realities of the business. I learnt that not every gig was an orchestral gig (ha!), I learnt about contract negotiating, I learnt about workflow. I was very fortunate to apprentice under a very generous composer, Pierre-Daniel Rheault, who taught me so much about the business and technology side of things. Pierre-Daniel was also the President of SOCAN (Canada’s PRO) and was on the board of the SCGC, so I learnt a lot about advocacy, the battles composers were fighting, and I graduated from the irritable coffee boy at these SCGC seminars to being drafted me on the Board. I started to take on projects that were near and dear to my heart, such as our Orchestral Reading Programs; I was the chair of our Spotting Notes committee, our thrice-a-year newsletter; I organized seminars in both Montreal and Toronto for both filmmakers and film composers. I’ve dropped back in terms of the grassroots stuff that I do since I moved to Los Angeles, but I’m very proud of the work we’ve done with our Apprentice/Mentor Program, which I’ve chaired for a few years.
Now I’m Second Vice President of the organization. More than anything, I feel like I need to be the voice of the next generation of composers. In many ways, I still feel like I’m an emerging composer (my dear friend and President, Marvin Dolgay keeps on telling me that “we’re all emerging composers…”) despite all the success that I’ve had. We are busy on a number of dossiers, but we are actively trying to better the working conditions of our membership.
Nick: What are you working on now?
Darren: I’m knee deep on an indie feature I’m scoring for my friend, Erahm Christopher. I’ve got some pop orchestral arrangements that are due in October, and then I start working on The Great Human Odyssey – In Concert. Niobe Thompson, the director, and I, are creating a live show along the lines of the BBC Planet Earth series, and we’ve got a premiere date with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra at the end of February. Shit, that’s soon!
Thanks, Darren, for an excellent Q&A! For more information about Darren, you can visit his IMDb.
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